Interview by ANDY EL KANANI — photos by JOSEPH W. OHLERT
Joseph W. Ohlert changed the typical definition of portrait. In his work, the artist attempts to dissect the subjects of youth, beauty and of art itself. He’s convinced that every person has a zero point: a state were everyone is the same, stripped down of clothing and attitude. Seeing his projects also has us asking ourselves: Who is the artist? What is the art piece? As well as the mother of all questions: What is art?
ANDY E. K. — Merely a matter of personal curiosity. The first thing I noticed about you was the project ‘Photographed by’ and I immediately thought it was amazing. How did it come about? Did you put the camera in people’s hands and asked them to photograph you?
JOSEPH W. O. — First of all, thank you. I had the idea already in high school but didn’t know how to get the people I wanted for this project. So I was lucky when a friend took me with her to a casting for a movie called ‘Confession of a Child of the Century’ starring Peter Doherty, Lily Cole and Charlotte Gainsbourg in the main roles. It went well and so a couple of days later I was on set for one week playing a little part next to all these amazing personalities. I took my chance and gave Peter and Lily my camera and asked them to take a picture of me for an art project. And so it started. At the same time, I was planning my first photography exhibition in Berlin and I wanted to combine it with the ‘Photographed by’ project. I got photographed by a lot of other people from the art, music and film scenes, and also added some friends and family members to that project. The idea behind this project was to destroy the very definition of artist and of art piece, and to turn that into an open question on who the real artist is. I was asking myself: What is a good photo and is it a good photo just because a famous person is in it? So, I met all this people and thought about how I could deal with this in my work and get something more interesting of out it than just a paparazzi-picture. I changed the typical definition of portrait and had them photograph me. Who is the artist/photographer, what is the art piece? And the old-fashion question: What is art?
ANDY E. K. — Generally, a photographer is scared of posing in front of a camera. You aren’t (or, at least, so it seems), as you often take self-portraits. Is that because you consider this looking from the outside as a way to better understand yourself, or is it something else?
JOSEPH W. O. — I started my first self-portrait series ‘daily sha/muc/bln’ at the age of 18, when I moved to 3 different cities in Germany in 3 months. In every city, I took one photo of myself with the photo-booth machine in the streets every day. I didn’t really had a clue about what that was going to be, but it was more and more fun and it costed just 1 Euro. I changed my look and always had new ideas to make a new composition. I stopped after watching the movie ‘The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain’. I cant really say why, but the series then just felt complete to me. From time to time, when I was working more with photography, I took little snapshots of myself. Maybe it’s a sort of documentary on the self – a way to watch myself growing up and to try to understand the changes taking place in life.
ANDY E. K. — How did you get into photography?
JOSEPH W. O. — Actually, I always was more into art, especially conceptual art. I was drawing a lot too and knew already at a very young age that I wanted to do something of that kind when I wold be older. In fact, I really started to work with photography while attending a special course in school, where I learned the basics of analog photography. I was travelling a lot and photographed the people in the streets. It was a good training for me to get a sense of taking pictures without getting noticed and to press the button at the right time. I was more interested in portraits since the beginning. Now I am also doing some still-lives, but portraits are still my main focus.
ANDY E. K. — What is the first picture you’ve ever taken? Was it a picture of yourself?
JOSEPH W. O. — Ahaha, no. Or.. maybe. Actually, I don’t remember. I never had a special moment where I realised ‘this is it’. It just was always there. My mother was taking often pictures of my siblings and me when we were younger. So I was used to it. But I just remember, when I built my own darkroom, the first picture I took was in fact a self portrait… haha. I wonder where it is. I guess in some hidden place in my photo archive.
ANDY E. K. — In the section of your website called ‘Situation’ there are a lot of funny scenes. What’s the weirdest situation you ever found yourself in? Have you captured it in one of those photos?
JOSEPH W. O. — You mean in my photographer career? Well, I remember a guy who I photographed once at my studio. We did some very beautiful photos even though he was still drunk from partying all night. It was a very intense atmosphere and I could see that he was turned on. He asked me if I would mind if he took a little wank. I was surprised but didn’t really care. I was interested in the situation and thought that was one of those photographer stories that happens sometimes. So, I was just sitting in my chair watching him and didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t take pictures of the situation, but I smile when I am looking at the portraits I took of him. He was a bit embarrassed after that, I guess, but I am an open minded guy and do love all the boys and girls I ever photographed. But I figured out for myself that it is better to leave the photographer-model- relationship in a mental way (but this doesn’t apply to my lover).
In general, I don’t really see my photos as that weird. I think it’s just my friends who live their normal lives being young and living in a city like Berlin.
ANDY E. K. — What’s your relationship with nudity? What can a naked man communicate, in your opinion?
JOSEPH W. O. — I think I try to capture a moment of a human being and not a person who we see when he wears clothes. I want to focus on the design of the human body and on someone’s natural look. It is very personal, but also just a body. My way of taking portraits changed after the past year. I am also taking portraits of artists and actors now and they don’t have to get naked… But it is still my favorite subject.
ANDY E. K. — What about the future? Are you scared about it?
JOSEPH W. O. — No. The world didn’t end in 2012, and so I’ll continue with I do until the digital wave will cause the end of the photo film production. Because I still only work with analog photography.